Catalonia is one of the autonomous regions that make up the pseudo-federal Kingdom of Spain. It has a distinct culture and historical background, having existed in many semi-independent forms over the centuries. Many Catalan people feel deserving of their own independent and sovereign state. Desires for independence grew following a period of cultural oppression under Spain’s military dictator Francisco Franco.
Major protests and demonstrations over the last decade have displayed an obvious hunger for Catalonian independence. Multiple surveys conducted by leading regional and national newspapers have shown a clear desire for a referendum on the issue. This June, the regional parliament announced a referendum on secession to take place on October 1. This referendum took place, despite attempts by the central government to block it in the weeks leading up to it.
As the referendum drew close, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy took several radical steps in an effort to stop it. Elected parliamentarians in Catalonia were arrested, and local mayors and school principals who supported the referendum were threatened with legal action and fines of several hundred thousand euro. These were bad omens which preceded a grotesque finale, when military police were deployed to stop people expressing their democratic will.
The people of Catalonia are facing the denial of their rights, and we, their fellow Europeans, are standing by and doing nothing. There have been no petitions. There have been no marches. There has been no major opposition to the manner in which the central government of Spain has disregarded Catalan people.
“The Spanish Nation […] proclaims its will to guarantee democratic life within the Constitution.” So reads the preamble of the constitution of the (supposedly) democratic Kingdom of Spain.
Regardless of your position on the independence and secession of the nation of Catalonia, it must be understood that for the government to make these desperate attempts to block such an emotive referendum, for which there have been calls for a significant period of time, is to stand in the way of its own constitutional mandate for democracy. In fact, the Spanish Constitutional Court recognised Catalonia’s right to self-determination in March 2014.
While the Constitution does mention the “indissoluble unity” of a Spanish Nation, emphasis is placed on the sovereignty, autonomy and status of the various nations within Spain. Nationhood and statehood are distinct concepts. There can still be one nation under the jurisdiction of two states, as is the case on this island, and in the Basque Country.
The UK Government did not support the independence movement in Scotland, but we did not see police shooting rubber bullets, shutting polling stations, forcibly removing voters from polling stations, or beating defenceless citizens on the streets when the Scottish people cast their votes.
As Nicola Sturgeon pointed out a few weeks ago, there are existing models for the peaceful execution of a fair, democratic decision on the matter of independence of a semi-autonomous region within a constitutional monarchy, such as the Edinburgh Agreement, which, in 2012, set out the framework for Scotland’s referendum on independence.
The brutality we have seen from around Catalonia in recent weeks is not only unnecessary, but also provides grounds for the suspension of Spain’s membership of the EU, in accordance with Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union. Article 7 allows for the suspension of a member following a breach of the Union’s values of “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”.
Although never before enacted, this article allows for member states to initiate the suspension of another member state’s voting rights within the Union, while continuing their obligations, in the case of ongoing violations of these core values, as we saw two Sunday’s ago. The violent derailing of democratic processes is surely a violation worthy of intervention.
There is no need for the feral behaviours exhibited by Spain’s government. In reality, they are doing nothing more than encouraging support for a secessionist movement.
When you beat people in the streets in the name of a government, it is to be expected that people are not going to like that government. Scrolling through Twitter, Facebook or any news platform last week, it could be clearly seen that Spain is being dragged backward into its own history, returning to the pre-1978 era of Franco.
As Europeans, we should be standing against this suppression of democracy. We should not tolerate theft of ballot boxes. We should not tolerate detention of elected officials for performing their duties. We should not tolerate the insidious growth of authoritarianism in Europe. Ireland has ratified EU treaties in the hope of promoting and protecting our shared values.
Today it seems these values are not shared by all. There was initially a notable lack of statement from prominent figures in the EU such as Junker, Timmermans, Tusk, or our own Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. What was published by the European Commission the day following the referendum did little but attempt to legitimise Spain’s military assault on their own citizenry. If we do not discuss and protest the violation of the rights of Catalonians, we are part of the problem. If nobody says anything, nothing will happen. Apathy is not acceptable in a world as small ours.
For all the discussion we have about free speech it seems like not much is being done to protect it. Driving change and ending injustice doesn’t always have to be marching in the rain or starting a petition. We live in a world where all we need to do is start a conversation, share an article on Facebook or hit “like” on a post. It’s not particularly difficult to make a difference.
We should all know how these sorts of things happen by now. First they come for the Communists, then the Jews, and then the Catalonians. By the time they come for us, there will be nobody left to stop them.